Archive for the ‘Historic preservation’ category

Ann Arbor’s Secret Sauce: Our Historic Buildings

July 27, 2014

Cities have personalities, and these influence their fates. The civic persona derives partly from economic circumstance (oil boom towns differ from cities where most income is from farming, or from a dominant industry), partly from the individuals who possess the means of power and influence (think of Chicago without the history of Richard Daley), and partly from the origins and mix of the people who live there.  But the physical environment has a strong influence.  When one first encounters a city, it is the sense of place that forms a first impression.  Like first impressions of a person newly met, this may be formed from superficial features, but it is often fairly accurate.

So what is the first impression that a visitors  might have of Ann Arbor?  If they are lucky, they’ll see lots of trees, open green spaces, and our charming downtown.  They’ll also see an attractive central campus and perhaps drive or walk through some of the near-downtown neighborhoods, like the Oxbridge area, Broadway, the Old West Side.  They’ll see that we have many architecturally interesting buildings from different historical periods.  If they are being given a tour, they’ll stroll through the Nickel’s Arcade (a replica of arcades seen in London, England) and perhaps get a look at the Law Quad.  Our historic buildings are Ann Arbor’s secret sauce.  Take those away and you just have a really bad highway system and some shopping malls.  (Okay, and some nice parks.)

A Sense of Place

The importance of  experience of place has been acknowledged for decades. Here is what Tony Hiss said in his book, Experience of Place (1990, Random House) :

“…our ordinary surroundings, built and natural alike, have an immediate and a continuing effect on the way we feel and act, and on our health and intelligence.  These places have an impact on our sense of self, our sense of safety, the kind of work we get done, the ways we interact with other people, even our ability to function as citizens in a democracy.”

More recently, a sense of place has been discovered as an economic driver.  A recently published overview by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a good historical review and a number of case studies of the practice of  “placemaking”, which often focuses on public spaces but also on cultural amenities.

“Place” has many benefits.  It means everyone gets a nice place to live and a better sense of community.  It is also good for business.  Employees are likely to be more attracted to a “place”, and businesses based on  tourism are more successful.  But I question whether it can be developed overnight according to a plan.  It takes years for a community to develop a sense of place.  And it needs nurturing.  Preservation of our historic buildings and neighborhoods is part of the needed sustenance for our sense of place and quality of life, not only for those of us who live here, but for those we want to welcome in the future.

Historic Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor's historic districts, courtesy AAPA

Ann Arbor’s historic districts, courtesy AAPA

Fortunately for us, we have many dedicated individuals who have been helping the cause of historic preservation in Ann Arbor for years.  Since 1975, historic preservation has been recognized as a public purpose, and we have a number of historic districts in which the Historic District Commission oversees changes in historic buildings.  The Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance, a group of citizens who advocate for historic preservation, have produced a brochure describing this process. (Click on the figure for a larger view.)

One name that immediately springs to mind when talking of historic preservation in Ann Arbor is Grace Shackman.  She has been studying and writing about historic Ann Arbor for decades.  Notably, she has published many articles in the Ann Arbor Observer, under the title of Ann Arbor, Then and Now.  These have been pulled together into a book, Ann Arbor Observed  (but more articles have been written since that publication!).

The Planada, before its demolition by the UM. Photo Stan Shackman

The Planada, before its demolition by the UM. Photo Stan Shackman

An excellent example of her articles is this one, Ann Arbor’s Oldest Apartments (note that this and many articles that preceded the Observer’s online presence have most thoughtfully been made available on the Ann Arbor District Library’s website).  This article not only describes many historic buildings but the political decisions being made in 2004 that would affect their future. (Sadly, the City Council led by John Hieftje failed to preserve the Individual Historic Properties described.  “Then and Now” indeed.)  It also shows the mix of archived (old) photographs from Grace Shackman’s research and the contemporary photographs made by her husband and collaborator Stan Shackman. (The Shackmans collaborated on two photographic essays as well, Ann Arbor in the 19th Century and Ann Arbor in the 20th Century.)

HistoricAnnArborCoverFrontAnother name that springs readily to mind in discussing Ann Arbor’s historic legacy is Susan Wineberg.  Like Grace Shackman, she is the author of books and articles, and a longtime student of Ann Arbor’s historic buildings. (An archive of her documents is maintained by Eastern Michigan University.) Her book, Historic Buildings of Ann Arbor,  is evidently out of print but is available as an electronically accessible version.

Now Wineberg has put this long experience into a guidebook, Historic Ann Arbor, published by the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation.  Together with her co-author Patrick McCauley (who has been active in restoration and is the current chair of the Historic District Commission), she has organized information about the currently existing historic buildings in Ann Arbor so that it can be used in different ways – an individual look-up of a given building,  with use of an index for historic figures associated with different buildings, a look at one’s own neighborhood, or even a walking tour.  (The book is organized by geographical sections with maps. Each map is marked with numbers that refer to the buildings, named in sequence.)

The book begins with a succinct and useful summary of architectural styles, with pointers to Ann Arbor examples.  Knowing the style is useful in appreciating an individual building, and this book takes us from the Federal Style (1780-1840) to the Brutalist Style (1955-1975).  Happily for Ann Arbor’s charm quotient, the latter style has few representatives here.  Regarding the Federal Style, it is a reminder that Ann Arbor became a village in 1833, before the founding of the State of Michigan.  So we go way back.

Then, arranged by neighborhoods with those useful maps, the buildings are listed with approximately a page of description each, and a black-and-white photograph.  Each entry has a number of interesting notes about the history of each structure.  Who knew that the Fleetwood Diner was from a kit produced by the Dag-Wood Diner company, ca. 1948?  Or that Gloria Steinham was the featured guest at the Hermitage reception to benefit the Ann Arbor Feminist House (1972)?.

This book should be on the bookshelf of everyone who lives in Ann Arbor and values any sense of our history and architectural diversity.  As Grace Shackman says in her introduction to the book,  “Susan and Patrick’s love of Ann Arbor shines through every page.”

(Our previous posts on this subject are now indexed under the Historic Preservation category.)

ADDENDUM:  The price for Historic Ann Arbor: An Architectural Guide is $35.00 plus tax.  It is available at several Ann Arbor independent bookstores and can be ordered through Nicola’s Books or shipped by arrangement with the Mail Shoppe 734-665-6676 (email is MAILSHPPE@AOL.COM) (there is a shipping and handling charge). Update: Now available from Amazon.com as well.

ADDENDUM:  Photographic essays continue to be produced by Arcadia Publishing.  The latest is Downtown Ann Arbor, by Patti Smith.  Browse Arcadia for other Ann Arbor books by Grace Shackman and Susan Wineberg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Value of Historic Preservation for Ann Arbor

June 12, 2012

One of the strengths of Ann Arbor as a community is its active historic preservation infrastructure.  Here is what the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance has to say about that (from a recently published brochure, attached here with permission).

Vibrant downtown streets and lively neighborhoods, laced with a rich diversity of 19th and 20th century historic buildings, provide the backdrop to the sense of place Ann Arborites love and the quality of life they enjoy.

Since 1975, when Ann Arbor’s city council declared historic preservation a “public purpose,” citizens have helped create historic districts and advocated for the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures in commercial districts and residential neighborhoods.

The brochure outlines details of the Historic District Commission (HDC) process.  The city currently has 14 historic districts.

Ann Arbor Historic Districts, from the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance brochure. Click for a larger image.

In recent years, historic preservation has become controversial, as it has come up against development pressures.  While historic preservation does not prevent development, it institutes a review process and also makes demolition of structures in a district more difficult.

The importance of historic preservation to maintaining the integrity of areas with historic structures was never so apparent as recently, with the tragic chain of events leading to the destruction of seven historic houses in one of our city’s near-downtown neighborhoods.  The value of these Central Area neighborhoods to developers is a strong incentive.

As we outlined in detail in our previous post,  Heritage City Place Row, there are many community-wide reasons to maintain such structures.  One is, simply, economics.  There are more and more discussions of “placemaking” and the importance of “quality of life” to attracting “talent”, young professionals who will enrich us all by joining new start-up enterprises.   The tourism industry also recognizes the importance of historic areas in attracting visitors.  Here’s what we said about that in our previous post:

Perhaps most telling in these difficult times is the argument that all of Ann Arbor stands to lose economic benefit from the destruction of this attractive area.  Donovan Rypkema, who has spoken in Ann Arbor and many other places on the economic benefits of historic preservation, makes the point that over time the most successful urban areas (i.e. those that attract people who will lift the economic climate) are those that maintain historic and architecturally significant structures.  They are part of the “quality of life” indicators that attract innovators, young entrepreneurial and creative people who will help the region be successful.  Ask yourself: what do you see first in pictures of “lovely Ann Arbor” that seek to entice visitors and investors?  You’ll see pictures of our historic Main Street with maybe the Law Quad thrown in.

Unfortunately, the saga of City Place shows that sometimes the story just doesn’t end well.  The City Council failed on several attempts to establish a historic district for the area. The seven contiguous historic houses on South Fifth Avenue just south of William were demolished and two large apartment buildings that will probably house mostly students are now under construction.  Almost the entire block of that historic neighborhood has been replaced. (Photos of the seven demolished houses are on the previous post.)

This is now the uninspiring view along most of the first block of S. Fifth.

A view down S. Fifth showing the two remaining houses on the block.

One reason the developer was able to execute this so-called “by right” development was that he was able to assemble the seven contiguous lots into one lot for the purposes of producing a site plan.  Under provisions of the current R4C zoning, this development met most of the setback and other requirements.  (Actually, the neighborhood submitted an appeal [long text here] to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which for some reason failed even to consider it.)

Now we may be able to make changes in Ann Arbor’s zoning ordinance that would prevent a similar tragedy.  As reported by AnnArbor.com, the City Council has now received the report of the R4C/R2A Zoning District Advisory Committee.  (Download report here.)  We’ll have to hope that Council approves the changes in the zoning ordinance recommended by this citizen committee.    It is important to safeguard our Central Area neighborhoods, and the others where R4C zoning exists.

But if we are to continue protection of historic structures, and to obtain the benefits of historic preservation, citizens as well as council members must support the work of the Historic District Commission as well.  Their decisions have sometimes been controversial, only because the reasoning behind their guidelines is often not intuitive to some people.  (The recent kerfuffle over a rail fence on the Old West Side is an example.)  Their faithful monitoring of our historic districts has resulted in a better community for all of us.

To learn more about the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance, send an email to historicA2@gmail.com.

Heritage City Place Row

October 24, 2011

It’s about values.

These pictures, from a city staff report, are of the seven historic structures (houses) that occupy the land where a development, called City Place or Heritage Row, has been under discussion over the last (almost) four years.  Click on each for a larger image. For a more comprehensive photographic overview of the area and a description of the history of the area, see the report from Fourth and Fifth Avenue Historic District Study Committee.

It seems it has been going on forever.  Now the fate of those seven houses on South Fifth is once again in the balance and things are moving faster than the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s story schedule can quite accommodate.   In its recent story, Council Moves on Future of Fifth Avenue, the Chronicle reported on a Council action that was already superseded by the course of events.  After extracting some special favors from Council for the City Place “by right” project, developer Jeff Helminski announced that the generous offer from Council made the same night (parking in city structures, yet) would not revive Heritage Row (see our  history from two years ago). This has led 5th Ward CM Mike Anglin to a try for a last-minute save at tonight’s Council meeting.  Amid a confusing welter of resolutions on tonight’s agenda  (some of them relate to the actions of Council at the last meeting, that have been superceded by recent events) are two new ones:  a proposal to appoint a new historic district study committee  (it would build on the results of the previous Fourth and Fifth Avenue Historic District study, and evidently consider a larger area, the South Central Historic District ) and a building and demolition moratorium to keep the structures intact while the historic district is revisited.  This is an echo of the action taken by Council two years ago (see our post, Legislative Legerdemain [and City Place]).

There have probably been a number of mistakes made on all sides through this saga, but the battle for these houses is still worth fighting.  Why should Council be willing to take more steps (in opposition, I gather, to advice from the City Attorney’s office, always litigation-shy)?  It’s a question of competing values, partly of how we balance private property rights against community interest.

Here is a thought experiment.  Suppose that you, as an enormously wealthy individual, purchase a classic work of art, beloved by the world as part of our common cultural heritage.   Are you entitled to destroy it?  Or maybe it is a business decision and you sell it at a nice profit to someone who has announced plans to destroy it.  This is, of course, one of those stupid hypothetical ethical dilemmas that people often pose to make a rhetorical point.  Artwork that has achieved that status is usually too valuable to be destroyed deliberately, though it has happened.  Yet it is true that most people of any cultural sensitivity are horrified at the idea because we have a communal sense of ownership of such artwork.

In a real sense, the same phenomenon is happening when historic structures (especially those that have retained their physical beauty) are razed or seriously altered.  We are all a little impoverished.  But is it reasonable to ask a private property owner who hopes to make some real cash from the property to acknowledge our sense of communal ownership? Yes, for several reasons.

1. Loss of a large swath of buildings alters the future course of an entire area.

Although neighborhoods and neighborhood interests have been derided by those who oppose them, they anchor our city and they are where we live.  The South Central area is one of the neighborhoods within the Central Area that has been under attack by those who would expand downtown uses into it. This is a real conflict of values, as those who would like to make money by expanding Downtown and also those who believe there are issues of equity and access would welcome a transition from a neighborhood to a denser urban fabric.  But replacing a whole swath of architecturally attractive houses with what amounts to a cell block would be a devastating blow to the future integrity of the entire neighborhood.

2. The communal interest in limiting rights of property owners is well established in law and practice.

The whole point of zoning and community standards regulations is to limit the rights of property owners where they threaten the common good and the rights of adjacent or nearby property owners.  For example, the city just recently announced that it will enforce the graffiti ordinance more stringently.

3. The historic buildings are a real economic asset to the entire city.

Perhaps most telling in these difficult times is the argument that all of Ann Arbor stands to lose economic benefit from the destruction of this attractive area.  Donovan Rypkema, who has spoken in Ann Arbor and many other places on the economic benefits of historic preservation, makes the point that over time the most successful urban areas (i.e. those that attract people who will lift the economic climate) are those that maintain historic and architecturally significant structures.  They are part of the “quality of life” indicators that attract innovators, young entrepreneurial and creative people who will help the region be successful.  Ask yourself: what do you see first in pictures of “lovely Ann Arbor” that seek to entice visitors and investors?  You’ll see pictures of our historic Main Street with maybe the Law Quad thrown in.

Let’s not lose our common heritage and future asset by mowing down those houses.

UPDATE: In what was not a particularly surprising outcome, the Council failed to pass CM Anglin’s “Hail Mary” maneuver.  We’ll just have to hope that a miraculous recovery of some other kind saves the seven houses, and the past and future, and everything.

SECOND UPDATEOn request, here is a visualization of City Place.  I don’t know that it represents the current plans, since the developer successfully requested amendments to the site plan that include a greater building height.

City Place front elevation, from the site plan. Click for larger.

There will be two of these buildings, with a parking lot in between.

City Place site plan. Note adjacent dwellings. Click for larger.

Again, the landscaping plan has been altered. Look at the mass of the buildings in comparison to the other dwellings behind it.

THIRD UPDATE:  Paula Gardner writes in today’s AnnArbor.com with an interesting and thought-provoking set of “lessons learned” about this project and its history.  
FOURTH UPDATE:  AnnArbor.com reports on the dismantling of the residences for architectural salvage.  (November 7, 2011)

FIFTH UPDATE: In fall 2015, City Place still has some spaces open after student move-in – an ominous indication.  Here is their site describing room plans and rates. Most rooms are still being rented for about $1000 per month.